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The Lagatos family dines together and talks about the issues of the world. Quotes from historical figures often pepper their discussions. One son is an NYU-bound student; the other is a star quarterback. This loving, enlightened household in upstate New York seems like just the kind of environment in which a teenager could announce his homosexuality without fear of derision or banishment.
Except that when Mr. Lagatos (Steven C. Fletcher) quotes Abraham Lincoln at the dinner table, it’s to advise his not-yet-out son Dorian that “it’s better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.” And when Dorian confesses his secret to his younger, studlier brother, Nicky (Lea Coco), Nicky borrows a line from Mein Kampf to support the argument that Dorian should simply act het around his judgmental classmates: “You tell a lie long enough and loud enough,” he says, “eventually they’ll believe it.”
“So your advice is to be more like Hitler?” Dorian deadpans.
Dorian Blues, writer-director Tennyson Bardwell’s debut, is a witty if familiar look at a young man’s struggle with sexual identity. Its protagonist is someone you’ve seen before—the kind of sharp, self-aware guy who introduces himself with a bit of self-conscious Kiss Kiss Bang Bang–style narration. “I find it’s good to talk about everything. My therapist says I overdo that—that I overanalyze,” Dorian voice-overs during the movie’s opening funeral. “Of course, she’s bulimic, so let’s not get too preachy.”
Fortunately, Bardwell usually displays a lighter touch. And Michael McMillian, the WB vet who embodies the director’s protagonist, has more than enough charm to make Dorian’s largely predictable journey a pleasant one. The former gives us Nicky’s ridiculous “Guide for the Closeted,” which includes saying “awesome” instead of “fabulous.” The latter convincingly sells Dorian’s first attempt to come out to his dad, represented by a dummy in a therapy session. The exercise turns into a phantom off-topic back-and-forth during which Dorian turns in exasperation from Dummy Dad to his therapist: “Annoying, isn’t he?” McMillian plays the line perfectly—as if he were Topher Grace in slightly gayer In Good Company mode.
This is a story of confusion and angst, though, and Bardwell skillfully balances the humor with a proper amount of sobriety. What initially seems a stereotypical fraternal relationship—tough-talking jock versus introspective thinker—evolves into something deeper as Nicky tries to support and protect Dorian in the best ways he knows how. Both of them, after all, are united by a fear of their critical, unfair father—even though he clearly favors Nicky. As the merciless dad, stage performer Fletcher is a powerhouse, with a caustic edge to his voice and an unblinking, withering glare that clearly demonstrates how difficult Dorian’s burden will be to unload. Coco, too, nicely humanizes a typically one-dimensional character—not bad for a former member of the Blue Man Group. Mo Quigley, as the boys’ mother, doesn’t leave much of an impression, but her invisibility is actually a crucial part of her role.
Dorian Blues has its flaws, however. The film is supposed to cover a 10-year span, though if that’s true, Dorian takes a helluva long time moving through late high school and early college. There’s also a blatantly ripped-off (though still pretty joyous) Napoleon Dynamite–ish dance by a fellow high-school reject. Another problem—and this one’s a bit more significant—is that early in the story, Dorian is often referred to as not merely a melancholy loner, but also a “moody” loser. Though clearly troubled, McMillian’s Dorian is no prince of darkness, and the occasional dissonance between script and character can be distracting.
At least Dorian isn’t breakfasting on Pluto or otherwise queening it up. He’s funny, sure, but in Bardwell’s and McMillian’s hands, he’s hardly flamboyant—just a normal teen wrestling with the problems of self, school, family, and sex. And that’s not a problem at all.
Writer-director Dani Menkin’s 39 Pounds of Love also seeks to prove how normal its subject is—only in an exceptional, life-affirming way. Ami Ankilewitz, an Israeli citizen who was born in Texas, was diagnosed as a toddler with a rare form of muscular dystrophy. His doctor told Ankilewitz’s mother that the boy wouldn’t live past the age of 6.
After filling in this bit of background, the doc then shows us Ankilewitz’s 34th-birthday party, just as the guest of honor, stick-figured and sitting in his wheelchair, prepares to make an announcement to his gathered family and friends. “I’m pregnant,” Ankilewitz says.
Har, har. But seriously, folks, Ankilewitz continues, he’s planning on taking a trip to the United States to travel from coast to coast, which has been his lifelong dream. Ankilewitz’s parents immediately forbid him, but he says he doesn’t care: He has to confront the doctor who diagnosed him and show the old man how wrong he was.
After just a few minutes, Menkin and co-writer Ilan Heitner have already sent most of their movie’s messages: Ami has friends! Ami has a sense of humor! Wheelchair or not, Ami doesn’t let anyone push him around! 39 Pounds—Ankilewitz’s adult weight—then jumps back a year to give a couple more tidbits about this medical miracle’s everyday life. Though his movement is limited to a single finger, Ankilewitz works as an animator in Israel. His handiwork is woven throughout the 70-minute film, decorating his travels in the form of a little bird that Ankilewitz uses to represent himself—and which we see flying just outside his plane as he makes his way to America. But there’s an even more heart-tugging part of Ankilewitz’s story that his drawings illustrate: His all-consuming love for his bubbly former caretaker, Christina.
It’s unlikely that many of 39 Pounds’ viewers will have been exposed to anyone quite in Ankilewitz’s condition, even onscreen. Murderball’s subjects weren’t nearly as physically feeble, and though last year’s Rory O’Shea Was Here illustrated the lives of the severely disabled, its main actors were able-bodied. It also seems unlikely, however, that many viewers have seen a real life quite so cinematic. The road scenes are predominantly buoyant as the caravan travels from California to Florida, but then come the dramatics, including an emergency brought on by the rarefied air at the Grand Canyon and a family reunion so scripted and sentimental that you expect Amy Grant to pop out of the manicured bushes.
The worst, however, is the focus on Ankilewitz’s crush on Christina. Ankilewitz provides obsessive narration about how wonderful she is, and clips show her bathing him and making him laugh. But then Menkin zooms in for the kill: Christina is asked whether Ankilewitz’s feelings are requited. The answer is no. And, horrifically enough, Ankilewitz is right there for his reaction to be immortalized. That’s not the end, though—Ankilewitz still swoons for Christina, so prepare for repeated slow-motion footage of her beaming and bouncing around, lest we forget her saintly loveliness, the heartless bitch.
Of course, there are genuinely touching—and genuinely genuine—moments here, too. Ankilewitz and his gang like to drink and goof around, for example, but neither really makes him forget the precariousness of his life. “I live with death by my side,” he says. “We’re old friends.” But such scenes apparently aren’t enough for Menkin, who closes with an incredibly awkward encounter between Ankilewitz and the baffled man who might or might not have been his childhood doctor—and then a sequence that shows Ankilewitz riding in the sidecar of a Harley. The inspirational music swells as the animated Ankilewitz returns, and this time, the bird is climbing a mountain and then flying off to the moon. Whether Ankilewitz safely makes it home or what’s become of him since are questions not answered in 39 Pounds, presumably because such matters were too dull for the camera.CP